It is only early days, but we are starting to see progress under Mikel Arteta. In this post I will outline what I believe to be the benefits our new manager has brought to our team and his immediate challenges.
B#1 Capable central defenders
I know, it’s been only 3 games with a single win, but I’m not joking. Luiz was great all 3 games (vital clearances, important tackles, clear organizational and leadership skills). He made an effective CB pairing with Chambers, recently with Sokratis, earlier with Mustafi, and I’m quite certain he would not fail with Holding either. Hopefully I’m not the only one, but definitely belong to a narrow minority who wouldn’t spend money on a centre back in January.
It would only make sense (and even then not much) if we were about to retire Sokratis at the end of the season – who just received MotM from TA 2 days ago. Despite Chambers side-lined with a long injury we have Luiz-Sokratis as well as Mustafi-Holding (not to mention the promising Mavropanos-Medley) pairings to survive this season, and then Saliba will join, and Chambers is also expected to return. So I would prefer Arteta to teach them how to defend in his preferred style and keep improving them. Luiz, Sokratis and Mustafi have contracts running down in 2021, they have minimal market value to sell, and I believe that our defensive challenges are/were stemming from bad tactics and player mismanagement rather than the lack of talent or motivation.
B#2 Decent back-up full backs
To be honest I believed (and probably still do) that the main reason for our poor season ending and lame season start were the gap between our first-choice and backup-fullbacks, and the constant use of Matteo Guendouzi. After Monreal was sold and Tierney arrived – as well as Bellerin recovered from his nasty injury – I was optimistic. But so far Hector couldn’t get up to his quality (I expect him to become the best RB in the PL), and Tierney suffered another injury, so with Kolasinac struggling with his foot recently we played with 2 pseudo-fullbacks, young Bukayo Saka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. And while they seemed constant liabilities under Ljungberg (a difference of opinion with TA) they played really mature for Arteta, and even Kolasinac played his best games for ages. While I’m still waiting for Tierney and Bellerin to resume their positions in the first team, I don’t think their substitutes are ticking bombs any more.
B#3 Ideal midfield
With Emery’s preference for Guendouzi and Ljungberg’s bias towards Willock we needed Arteta to incorporate the wisdom of the Bergkampesque community and play Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil together in central midfield (And put the former in his best role of DM with the option to get involved in chance creation and occasionally attacks, but without any pattern for the opposition to read).
Without Leno’s unfortunate blunder we would have made 6 point against 2 top 4 opponents. What truly amazes me is that with Ozil harassing the center backs we dominated midfield in a 4-2-4 formation. But we have 2 challenges ahead of us. First, we must keep Torreira and Xhaka, which is rather a matter of trust and atmosphere than money. Second, even if we sign midfielder(s) in the winter, we should go for starlets (K. Philips, G. Fernandes, E. Eze) than players demanding regular starts (Can, Partey, Ndidi, Isco, Rabiot). But before we start to panic, the Guendouzi-Willock-Ceballos midfield (possibly featuring ESR) seems like a capable midfield – I’m expecting to see against Leeds – who are in desperate need of minutes, so I won’t mind the lack of midfield reinforcements either.
B#4 Attacking synergies
We had this discussion earlier this season, and not everybody was convinced about the effectiveness of the OPAL formation up front. Ozil received a fair share of criticism, Pepe was named the biggest waste of money in the history of Arsenal, and the Lacazette-Aubameyang partnership were often questioned due to the players substitute or complement each other. Well, kudos to Arteta, but these 4 played along really well against Manchester United. OK, let’s not get carried away, it was a home game with a lot of pressure on the players, but what I’m optimistic about, is that with OPAL we don’t need all of them to play exceptionally. In fact, on Wednesday it was Ozil and Pepe in their best, but even an average Laca or Auba can occupy a defender or two. As long as the 2 C(D)M can cope with the midfield pressure these 4 attacking geniuses are asking tough questions from any defensive formations. They need some time to click, but I feel a lot of potential there. MU should be proud to concede only 2 goals.
Not surprisingly, we managed to deal with this load by a lot of running. For the midfield dominance full backs and wingers are systematically supporting our central (defensive) midfielders; wingbacks participate in attack, wingers help out their wingback/fullback counterparts on a regular base. That takes a huge toll on stamina. I don’t know if this is an Arsenal issue, or we are getting close to the frontiers to the human body, but by the end of both home games players were struggling to get back, fight for the ball, etc. Based on Arteta’s judgement Pepe is not yet fit for 96 minutes of physical challenge, Ozil is neither the type nor at the age of running and pressing all game long (see next paragraph), so even without injuries or tactical changes we have „used” 2 of our 3 substitutions.
If Arteta wants to gradually reintroduce injured players (as he did with Kolasinac, or might do with Ceballos) then he quickly runs out of changing opportunities. The only (?) trap ahead is if he tries to improve the players’ stamina too hard, then they will be exposed to serious injuries with a lot higher probability than without the physical stretch. Arteta has some slack with the Leeds game as well as the clash against Olympiacos to experiment with rotation, but the stamina challenge is another reason to nurture a back-up XI almost as good as the first choice team.
C#2 Ozil’s succession
It is not really fair to compare Ozil to de Bruyne. While the latter is far more efficient in scoring himself, our German has the skill and elegance that only a selected few possess. His dummies and through passes are joys to watch. Yet, he was substituted against Bournemouth and Chelsea, and probably would have been against MU, if Lacazette and Torreira could have kept playing. Not because of sending a message, but due to him being not accustomed to perform heavy pressing. And at the age of 31 his stamina will not likely improve. But this is perfectly normal. Furthermore, the next line of attacking playmakers need chances to grow and prove themselves, so I’m perfectly fine with Ozil playing 60-70 minutes and then being replaced (but I would rather pick ESR than the box-to-box Willock).
So if Arteta and/or the club doesn’t want to renew Mesut’s contract (which is hardly surprising given his current salary) then gradually removing him from duty, yet utilizing him as much as possible in a chance-creator and mentor capacity is a reasonable choice. The other option is to sign somebody who can take over his duties. But there are not many players available with his skillset, and those who possess his competence are either way too expensive (Havertz) or not inspired by moving to a (currently) mid-table PL team (Maddison, Brandt, van de Beek). So that leaves us with a few options. Staying with an Academy graduate, break the bank for Bruno Fernandes or somebody else from the above list, signing a relatively unproven, yet costly youngster (Odeegard, Zainolo, Grealish) who would love to join Arsenal, or give up on this central attacking playmaker position, just like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Chelsea did.